How can government innovate with Drupal?

28 07 2012

Earlier this week, I braved the cold, foggy Canberra weather to attend an industry breakfast focused on the open-source content Management System, Drupal, which was hosted by PreviousNext and Acquia. For readers unfamiliar with Drupal – it is a free, open-source content management system (CMS) and content management framework (CMF) written in PHP and distributed under the GNU General Public License. It is used as a back-end system for  many websites ranging from personal blogs to corporate, political, and government sites including and, as well as numerous Australian government sites – see here for complete list. It is also used for knowledge management and business collaboration.

One of Acquia’s founders, Kieran Lal, along with Department of Employment, Education and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) developer Daniel Nitsche, gave an introduction to Drupal to explain how the Australian Government can “Do More With Drupal” at the seminar. A glance around the room was enough to determine that there is a massive amount of interest from government agencies in Drupal, presumably for its possibilities for streamlining both financial and development costs .

I found Daniel’s talk very useful in terms of a practical implementation of Drupal in a large government agency. Some of his comments came as no surprise though – especially regarding accessibility. For example, it is common knowledge that Drupal is more accessible  ‘out of the box’ than SharePoint. What I thought very interesting was the set-up of web developers  in his department (esp as I worked in what was the precursor agency to DEEWR). Apparently in the communications branch, there are 10 Drupal developers doing the entire end-to-end process of development, design and publication. I think this is excellent, but I do think there was an essential element missing in this discussion – the role of content and stakeholders.

There was something quite ‘de ja vu’ about the breakfast, as it conjured memories of going to similar industry events around 7 years ago, promoting MySource Matrix as the great new open source CMS for gov websites. At this event , poor old MySource Matrix was held up as a CMS which is not really ‘open source’ and with limited developer and vendor support, as opposed to Drupal where it was cited that there is about 17,000 tools out there and 19,000 developers. Yup – I am impressed, there is a huge community of people out there who are passionate about Drupal.

Unfortunately, I was less impressed with the talk from Kieran Lal. I appreciate that he has been a key driver in the exponential rise of Drupal but his talk seemed to be pitched at senior managers and CEOs, rather than a room full of  IT and Web savvy people (my assumption). For example, I thought it was a long stretch to talk about different aspects of the Information Architecture featured on the website for Harvard University as a Drupal solution. In fact I found most of the presentation lacking in terms of accessiblity of content and user perspective. Also his discussion about ‘Risk’ was vague and didn’t address what the risks actually were for government agencies considering moving to Drupal. From my perspective, a bit more specific detail would have been very useful as this kind of information could save agencies a lot of time.

I think it is great we have all of this cool online technology, which is flexible, interoperable and not to mention cheap – fantastic!! What is missing from this discussion are the issues around content, audiences and strategy. This is not an observation that is directed only at Keiran, but to many people working in the web space.

At times I find the disconnect between technology and audience needs highly problematic. Yes, government agencies do need to make websites, quicker, more flexible and cheaply, plus comply with the Web Transition Strategy, but audiences also need to understand the content and to find it accessible. This form of accessibility is not about getting 100% on the HTML Validator, it is about ensuring written content is understood by the audience.

IT News published an article about the breakfast which offers more detail about the DEEWR implementation.

More info about the event:


What’s hot at Web Directions

15 10 2010

Yesterday a colleague and I were interviewed at Web Directions about “What’s hot and what’s not”. This was a great opportunity for us to plug as well as offer our opinion about what is emerging in the web development and design space.

Well, for me what is smoking hot at the moment is HTML5 and CSS3. I am uber impressed by what you can do without Javascript – transitions, fades, specialised fonts, animating images. To be honest I don’t think I have even explored the tip of the iceberg here as there is so much new stuff.

It seems so long ago when I created my first page in 1995, complete with tiled pineapples and a flashing title (many would remember that now ousted tag). There was not a lot of opportunity to animate then, not unless you included an animated gif or a flash tag. Javascript and Flash came later and both had their pros and cons. The capacity HTML5 and CSS3 has for doing much more of this work with less code is very inspiring.

Silvia Pfeiffer’s talk on HTML5 audio and video was fantastic (I know that is totally uncritical feedback). It was excellent because the possibilities offered to audio and video in HTML5. Silvia’s knowledge of this area as impressive and I look forward to keeping abreast of developments with HTML5, particularly in the open video space.

Knud Möller’s talk on RDFa was good value. As a member of the W3C RDFa working group he has a lot of insight into this emerging standard for tagging data. Again, there seems to be some good support in the open source community with Drupal 7 including RDFa as part of the standard set up.

Michael Smith’s “HTML5 Report Card” was very entertaining, the information was really useful and the presenting style was lots of fun. The useful links from this talk are all covered in his presentation on Slideshare (where he appears under the handle of sideshowbarker).

Also, I think there is momentum building in the geomapping space, though I have a way to go to get around the dev side of things. Icelabs Max Wheeler’s talk went a bit over my head on a technical level, though his website decaf sucks, is a lovely example of the use of geo-data that displays elegantly across desktop and mobile devices. Although I still have lots to learn, I am certainly getting a much better idea of what is possible with flexible design and geo-data.

Speaking of Icelab, it was great to see Nathan McGinness, who used to work there and was a member of dorkbot cbr before he relocated to Sydney to work with Digital Eskimo. He was there showing off his invention sketch lab. Good luck Nathan – it is a great idea!

Nathan McGinness - sketch lab

As a first timer, I understand now why so many web people make the pilgrimage to Web Direction year after year, as this is a great opportunity to learn, network, catch up with friends, colleagues and even past students. One of the things that hit me the most is this where people talk about how they make things, rather than just thinking or writing about it (which is what I have spent last 9 years doing –  focusing on my PhD).

I am looking forward to much more time to play and learning through doing, not just observing and I have plenty to inspiration thanks to Web Directions.

Real World CSS3 for designers – Dan Rubin workshop

13 10 2010

Dan Rubin’s CSS3 workshop was featured as part of the Web Directions South, which is a very popular event for web professionals.

It must be said that Dan is a bit of celebrity in this community as he has been involved in many high profile projects and contributed to a number of influential texts in this field. For example, Dan is a contributing author of Cascading Style Sheets: Sepa­rating Content from Presen­tation (2nd Edition, friends of ED, 2003), tech­nical reviewer for Beginning CSS Web Devel­opment (Apress, 2006), The Art & Science of CSS (Site­Point, 2007) and Sexy Web Design (Site­Point, 2009), coauthor of Pro CSS Tech­niques (Apress, 2006), and Web Stan­dards Creativity (friends of ED, 2007).

Even though I am not a designer in my current job, occasionally I do some freelance work, and, as my approach focuses on accessibility and usability, there is a significant role for CSS in the design process. Ironically, I really got into CSS when one of my PhD advisers, Tim Brook helped me to solve a design problem on a website project titled swipe. My initial design was of a bar code that was composed of images sliced into a table and then JavaScript was used to do roll overs and change words. My approach could only be described as very 1997, as despite my awareness of the accessibility issues, I could not think of another solution except for Flash. After Tim looked at the website he sent through a small piece of CSS which gave me the roll over. This was enough to get me thinking and playing with CSS as a design tool and I was very happy with the result.

The idea of play was a big theme in Dan’s workshop, which was a very practical tour of websites and tools that are utilising CSS3. The two things that were the most inspiring was media queries (new and easy ways of including multi device support in one style sheet) and the availability of a range of fonts that you can access and download.

The range of tools and the browser support for CSS has been exponential and Dan’s survey of CSS3 was very helpful. I will certainly be downloading tools such as CSS Edit (Mac), Modernizr, Selectivizr and accessing the quirksmode, hard boiled web design by Andy Clark and realworldcss3 by Dan Rubin websites as resources.

Some useful links from Dan’s workshop:

I am definitely inspired to experiment and remember the fun of play and of creative problem solving with CSS design. I have started a sandbox section of my blog to document my experiments and will share this play with readers.